In most instances, works shed light as to the period of time during which they were written. Beowulf is an epic narrative that mirrors Anglo-Saxon ideals and concepts. It was composed after the conversion of Anglo-Saxons into Christianity, yet their pagan tendencies which they were used to in their earlier ways of life was carried into the narrative Beowulf. The legitimacy of Beowulf as a work of fiction, when put in a historical perspective, is, however, doubtful. This is because the pagan concepts included in Beowulf were also found in some other works of the period which had many Christian concepts and ideals therein. This was very characteristic of England at this time period-though it was converted to Christianity, it still practiced many pagan tendencies. Pagan and Christian's concepts differ widely, but the Anglo-Saxons meshed these tendencies to create a form of Christianity which was totally different from the Christian aspects practiced in mainland Europe. This paper explores Christian and pagan symbols present in the work Beowulf and how they have been reconciled so as to appeal to the Christian audience to whom it was addressed (Stevick 79-89).
Fame, a pagan concept is clearly demonstrated in Beowulf. Characters in the poem including Beowulf deem fame as having great prowess and accomplishing great tasks of heroic status. Beowulf himself states that let him who can win fame before death because that is a dead mans best memorial. This gives the impression that the people, as represented by Beowulf himself, valued fame so much. To demonstrate their greatness and prowess, the Danes and Geats in the story had to prove themselves. Beowulf, for instance, had to prove himself by mortally wounding Grendel, thus demonstrating his prowess and his heroism (Lawson). After this heroic feat and display of prowess, Hrothgart tells him that by his exploits he has established forever established fame. Fame was therefore required to be attained by all means necessary, which in most instances conflicted with certain Christian elements. Though heroism and display of prowess are not Christian virtues per se, the author justifies them by attributing to God as evidenced in the speech he makes to the characters. Hrothgart, for instance, states that Beowulf killing of Grendel was achieved through the power of the Lord. The author thus attributes the concepts and fame to God, reconciling aspects of paganism and Christianity.
Fate is another theme that is evident in the work Beowulf. It is commonly associated with death or greatness. The author, for instance, states that the men who slept in Heorot the night after the death of Grendel were unaware of their impending fate. This was in reference to imminent death that would befall one of them. Beowulf, just before his battle with the dragon, resigns himself to the pagan concept of fate when he says that fate shall decide the issue. At this point, the author does not mention God with fate. At some later point of the poem, however, Hrothgarts wish is that God rewards Beowulf with good fortune as He had done all through. This was in reference to Beowulfs defeat of Grendel. This statement clearly shows that the pagan concept of fate and fortune were tied to God. In addressing the King just before his fight with Grendel, Beowulf states that whoever was to be killed in the duel had to resign himself to the verdict of God and that fate should determine the issue. In this, Beowulf demonstrates his Christian beliefs and at the same time gives us a glimpse of how his beliefs are tainted with traces of pagan concepts (Joseph E. Marshall 1-24).
The death of Hrothgarts advisor brings to surface the pagan concept of vengeance. Hrothgart states that it is better for a man to avenge the death of his friend than to grieve along. This idea, however, contradicts Christian values and ideals. On the other hand, it demonstrates how the people valued avenging for the loss of their loved friend or family member. Hrothgart, however, rises up to thank the almighty for the heros words after Beowulf had given his speech. This is seemingly contradictory as at one point the character talks of vengeance, a pagan concept, and under the same breath, he thanks the Almighty. Beowulf states that the king of the Geats planned to take vengeance after the destruction of the national strongholds by the dragon. At some point later, Beowulf states that he thought he had greatly angered the Lord by breaking the commandments. Though at first he intended to take vengeance, he later takes a look at himself and thinks that he had angered the Lord, which is both a contradiction as well as a reconciliation of pagan and Christian concepts (Abrams).
In Beowulf, there is a strong depiction of God being the ultimate protector. When narrating his battle with Grendels mother, for instance, Beowulf states that the fight would have ended straightaway had God not been his protector. Beowulf seems to have a belief that a mystical power is always watching over him. He states that God has most often been the guide of the man who has no friends. However, there seems to be a held notion that Gods protection need to be earned by the warrior who must first be true to his values, courage, pride and humility before God can protect him. This, however, is not in tandem with Christian concepts as Gods protection does not need to be earned; He gives it graciously (Stevick 79-89).
The narrative Beowulf also stresses the fact that all earthly good, be it possessions or success has its origins in God. Beowulf, as he was going to fight with Grendels mother in the cave came across a powerful weapon hanging on the wall. He gave credit for this provision to the wielder of Men. Hrothgart at some point in the passage tells Beowulf that the status of a king is achieved by the grace of God. Hrothgart is amazed at how Gods spirit could give wisdom to mankind, land, and earlship, implying that earthly power and status held by man is only an illusion; true power is freely given by God. All that a man enjoys here on earth is only granted by the grace of God.
Hrothgart informs Beowulf that all earthly possessions and achievements that have been freely given by God ought to be accepted with humility and shared lest the king bring doom onto himself. A good king is one who freely shares his possessions, not fearfully holding them onto himself. He further reminds Beowulf that life in itself is a gift from God and that our bodies have been loaned to us which will eventually weaken and fall. We should, therefore, make the best use this gift of life by enriching other lives before our bodies weaken and we fall from existence.
Beowulf is meshed with both pagan and Christian concepts, evidenced by a transition from pagan traditions into Christianity, though pagan tendencies were carried over from their earlier ways of life into Christianity.
Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology Of English Literature. New York: Norton, 1974. Print.
Joseph E. Marshall,. "Goldgyfan Or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology For Beowulf And Treasure". Studies in Philology 107.1 (2009): 1-24. Web.
Stevick, Robert D. "Christian Elements And The Genesis Of "Beowulf"". Modern Philology 61.2 (1963): 79-89. Web.
Lawson, Rich. "Exclusive Medieval Articles - Christianity In Beowulf". Shadowedrealm.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 4 May 2016.
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